Want to improve the TSA? Cut its budget

When it comes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), can less be more?

Can a less militaristic, intimidating presence at the airport mean better security and a better traveler experience? All without less security?

Several years ago, testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I noted:

1. Our terrorism watchlist capabilities have improved dramatically. Every American traveler is now screened for every flight. For all intents and purposes, we all should be considered members of PreCheck.

2. All airplane cockpits have been hardened, locked and fortified — even a .44 Magnum shot will not penetrate cockpit doors.

3. Passengers, now aware of the possibility of having their plane used as a missile, will not allow terrorists to take over an aircraft.

TSA — the part that the public sees — is set up like the Maginot Line. This World War I defensive system became a poster child about generals fighting the last war. In addition, it consumed such a large budget that other facets of the defense were underfunded.

Today, TSA finds itself in a similar position — defending against old threats; in some cases, threats that no longer exist.

In addition, the focus on passenger screening has reduced funding to secure the vulnerable back ends of U.S. airports. And finally, much of the funding for the intelligence portion of our security system — that part that no one really sees — is shrouded in more layers of budget secrecy.

If the TSA budget were cut, the administration would have to focus on what is most important — what really keeps Americans safe while flying. That is all of the intelligence work that goes on before anyone gets to the airport.

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In fact, if a terrorist ever got to the TSA inspection line, our systems would have had to fail more than a dozen times. The real protection is pre-check. Make no mistake: Every traveler goes through pre-check against criminal files and the terrorist database whether or not they pay for Pre-Check fee.

The visible part of TSA at the airports is mostly theater, designed to make passengers feel safer. TSA airport screeners have never apprehended a terrorist, discovered a bomb, or uncovered any other real threat.

Even if there were a threat, the futility of searches at the airport is best demonstrated by looking at the problems of drugs and weapons in prisons. Even our best efforts at federal and state maximum-security prisons fail.

If maximum-security prisons can’t do it, it is folly to expect TSA to effectively interdict weapons and explosives from dedicated, trained terrorists.

The new TSA Administrator, Peter Neffenger, recently spent an hour with some of the travel industry’s top executives, and it is clear he is well aware of the challenges facing his agency, and of the agency’s importance to the American economy and way of life.

Unfortunately, his prescription for a better TSA performance at the airport is more money.

I disagree.

We don’t need more money; the country needs smarter spending of the money already allocated.

Here are my suggestions once again. The list, after more than two years, is still a worthy and sensible goal.

#1 — Revise the forbidden items list to focus on explosives.
Pocket-knives, box cutters, tools, and so on, are no threat and cannot be used to break into the cockpit.

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#2 — Decommission all whole-body scanners, and go back to metal detectors for primary screening.
Radiation effects are not documented, and half of the privacy protection software does not function according to TSA itself. These machines have not proven to be better than metal detectors. In fact, they are considered by some to be worse — taking more space and slowing security.

#3 — Dress TSA security screeners in non-threatening uniforms, perhaps pastel polo shirts.
They are security assistants, not law enforcement officers. Their job is to check identification and make sure the traveling public is safe, not to force citizens into submission. Get rid of the starched shirts, badges and bling.

#4 — The terrorist watchlist already covers all travelers.
All names are checked every time we fly. The new world of total passenger intelligence screening combined with big data make the current invasive and intrusive TSA searches unnecessary. A metal detector will do.

Unfortunately, the American public has a love/hate relations with TSA. They love the sense of security that the uniformed phalanx of officers and array of scanners, swabbers and, sometimes, dogs engenders. But we hate the intrusive nature of TSA — the prodding, poking, questioning, strip-searching and more.

A budget cut and pastel-colored polo shirts might be exactly what the administration needs to focus on their customer service work, helping travelers be more secure.

TSA, with a slashed budget, can focus on the important part of their mission and cut back on the superfluous 21st-Century Maginot Line that has been constructed at airports across the country.

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America’s aviation security will be no worse for the changes, and the overt intrusion on our privacy will be curtailed.

What should we do with the TSA?

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Charlie Leocha

Charlie Leocha is the founder of Travelers United, a Washington, DC, advocacy group. He also serves on the DOT Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection.

  • MarkKelling

    I just returned from Italy and other points in continental Europe and think the TSA could learn a lot about airport security from how things are done there.

    The screening employees are dressed in nice grey or black suits (nothing fancy, just nice). They do not stand there constantly yelling about what to take out and take off before going through the metal detectors. In fact, the security process is very calm and quiet compared to the US. All the lanes were open at every airport I went through even at off peak times and the lines are very short and move quickly even at some of the larger busier airports.

    If you do set off the detector, only then do you remove your shoes and belt and go through again. Someone is there almost immediately with a hand held metal detector to go over you without any touching to find what set off the detector if going through a second time continues to set off the detector.

    I never felt any less safe with these procedures than I do with all of what TSA has and puts us through.

    I completely believe that the only reason we have all of the stuff at the TSA checkpoints we do is someone with lots of influence is making lots of money off of what is sold to the government.

  • Alan Gore

    I actually prefer the body scanners to the old metal detectors, because of both speed and safety. The new machines do a better job of finding contraband (metal detectors don’t see C4) and are faster than having to be hand-scanned because ‘something beeped’. But they are a lot more expensive, so no airport is going to go all-scanner until the price comes down.

  • Nancy Nally

    That wasn’t my experience in Germany earlier this year. Lots of yelling – including some of it directly at me because I misunderstood the instructions of a security screener who was speaking his 2nd language in addressing me (English) and using a different form of that language than I speak (British vs American English). A simple misunderstanding over whether I was supposed to take my iPad out of my bag was treated like I was some kind of child that needed to be lectured. It was very unpleasant.

  • cscasi

    I am sure it happens now and then at airports around the world. But, I do seem to hear more (verbal do this and that and don’t carry this and that through, etc. ) from the TSA screeners than from screeners of other countries. I have been through Frankfurt airport numerous times and the only issue I ever have is with my CPAP machine. Sometimes they want to check it (swab it) and the place is sometimes further down than where the security check is being done and we have to walk down there, get the test done and then back. Also, I brought some distilled water along on one trip. TSA wanted to stop me, but it was “medical necessity” and they tested it and passed me on. I was stopped in the Frankfurt screening and was told I could not bring that through. I presented a note that stated it was distilled water and was medically necessary for my CPAP machine (which I was hand carrying) and translated it into German. The screener read it and said OK, but I still had to take a couple minute walk with the screener down to the place to test it, then be walked back and I was on my way. There may be some things they do and want different that how the TSA does them (Heck, it seems the TSA procedures vary from airport to airport, or perhaps depending on who is on duty at the time). Nonetheless, I think the European screeners seem to be more relaxed and professional that the TSA.
    I would vote for something in between the two opinions we were presented with to vote on, ‘What should we do with the TSA’?

  • Nancy Nally

    This link explains how she got a PreCheck designation on her boarding pass:


    She did not pass the background check for program membership. She was included through a part of the program that is basically random inclusion after names are checked against foreign terror watch lists. That part of the program has recently been done away with after protests from paying PreCheck members who objected to the line being clogged with passengers who were getting the service for free. (Frankly it really annoyed me to have paid and then hear some of my friends say they didn’t bother to pay because they got it every time anyway.)

  • Nancy Nally

    I will say my experience in January in Frankfurt was really jarring because the previous year had been so wonderful. However, when I left Frankfurt this year it was right after the terror attacks in Paris and that may have had something to do with the change in tone. They were very confrontational because I didn’t understand that my iPad mini had to come out of my bag for screening, and insisted on putting the mini and my entire bag back through the machine just to be jerks. The guy was waving my iPad in my face “WHAT IS THIS????” like it was some form of alien technology dropped from the sky and he’d never seen one before. It was really weird.

  • Extramail

    I’d settle for the TSA agents being consistent. I flew with my daughter and infant granddaughter recently. My daughter had two bottles of breast milk and two small, unopened jars of baby food so she could feed her daughter. The flight out, no problem going through screening. The flight home turned into the circus of the absurd. The TSA agent would allow the breast milk and one jar of baby food but not the other. Really? My daughter asked to speak to his supervisor because she needed the food for the flight AND had already flown once with similar items. The supervisor came over, escorted my daughter to a private room, conducted a pat down and took everything out of her carry on and examined every single thing in her bag. And, then still told her she could not take one of the jars of baby food. Was this done to punish my daughter? Was this done to show other passengers that they had better not challenge a TSA agent? Would she have been denied boarding if she resisted in any way! Or worse, been arrested? I could not have been more appalled and felt extremely powerless to do anything.

  • Susan Richart

    Yes, it was done to punish your daughter for questioning the TSA. She should never have agreed to go to a private room with anyone from the TSA. Be prepared to miss your flight, but refuse a private room patdown. They can do whatever they want to you in public so others can see what is happening.

    TSA searches are administrative searches which are to be done in view of the general public. A private room search is NOT in view of the general public and hence not an administrative search.

    “”Moreover, the possibility for abuse is minimized by the public nature of the search. Unlike searches conducted on dark and lonely streets at night where often the
    officer and the subject are the only witnesses, these searches are made under supervision and not far from the scrutiny of the traveling public.”

    See United States v. Skipwith, 482 F.2d 1272, 1275

    (5th Cir. 1973).”

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